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Healing the World: Sorrow without Fear, Bible study by Benjamin Simon

Healing the World: Sorrow without Fear, Bible study in times of Covid-19 on Psalms 42 and 43 by Benjamin Simon

14 May 2020

Healing the World
Sorrow without Fear
Psalms 42 and 43
Benjamin Simon

 

The Psalms invite us to a deeper encounter with God—and with our fears.

Photo: Albin Hillert

Introduction

In some countries, when you purchase a computer or other technical device, you get a warranty  with it. Together with the computer or telephone, you have access to all the technical support that you need, and more. The aim is that you do not have to worry at all. They even go so far as to offer to replace the whole device, if needed:  a true warranty of value.

It´s very different in our personal lives. No worry-free guarantee comes with our lives, even if good marketing companies want us to think so. Life is fragile and vulnerable. It is not quickly repaired or reinstalled and never replaced. On the contrary, life is irreplaceable and cannot be repeated. It is precious. And so we worry.

Worldwide, in the diverse regions around our globe, we face all kinds of threats and oppression as well as harassment, racism, and different kinds of fears. And in these last weeks and months, through the COVID-19 pandemic even more uncertainty and great unease has been added to the existing anxieties we face. It is not a simple challenge, and because aggravating the anxieties we already have, the whole of humanity is now facing the pandemic with a heightened sense of uncertainty - especially those who have always been the most vulnerable.

It is especially these vulnerable who cannot just adhere to the  call to “stay at home,” because they have to feed their children by earning daily or getting the daily shopping done at the market. They do not have the luxury of a refrigerator, where they can store a week’s worth of groceries. Many do not know how to survive till next week, never-mind securing their financial futures.

There is also so much uncertainty around the virus, sometimes fuelled by misleading biblical interpretations from some uninformed church leaders or political rulers who do not acknowledge the menace and very real threat which comes from this virus.

And so, I ask myself: Is this the only way out of such a situation, by worrying? Is falling into a deep valley full of sorrows the only thing left for us?

The biblical context

The Bible is no stranger to this condition: it is filled with stories of people and their sorrows. It knows about people who are living in distress. Since the dawn of time, people and believers have been struggling with this God who has not given us a worry-free guarantee so as to enjoy life unimpaired. Instead, we face challenges that cause agitation, anxiety, and apprehension in us, and there is nothing carefree about that.

In the Gospel of Matthew, we learn exactly the opposite, when Jesus teaches us, “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matt. 6:34). But can we do this and put this advice into practice in the time of this pandemic, a time with so many doubts and insecurities?

In Psalm 42 and 43 the psalmist shows us a way to live, despite the massive worries  we have, and how to handle them. I invite you to read these psalms:

Psalm 42. Longing for God

1 As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
2 My soul thirsts for God,
for the living God.
When shall I come and behold
the face of God?
3 My tears have been my food
day and night,
while people say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”

4 These things I remember,
as I pour out my soul:
how I went with the throng,
and led them in procession to the house of God,
with glad shouts and songs of thanksgiving,
a multitude keeping festival.
5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help 6 and my God.

My soul is cast down within me;
therefore I remember you
from the land of Jordan and of Hermon,
from Mount Mizar.
7 Deep calls to deep
at the thunder of your cataracts;
all your waves and your billows
have gone over me.
8 By day the Lord commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.

9 I say to God, my rock,
“Why have you forgotten me?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because the enemy oppresses me?”
10 As with a deadly wound in my body,
my adversaries taunt me,
while they say to me continually,
“Where is your God?”

11 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.


Psalm 43. Prayer to God in Time of Trouble

1 Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause
against an ungodly people;
from those who are deceitful and unjust
deliver me!
2 For you are the God in whom I take refuge;
why have you cast me off?
Why must I walk about mournfully
because of the oppression of the enemy?

3 O send out your light and your truth;
let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill
and to your dwelling.
4 Then I will go to the altar of God,
to God my exceeding joy;
and I will praise you with the harp,
O God, my God.

5 Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you disquieted within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him,
my help and my God.

 

The two psalms are structured in stanzas and refrains (42:6, 42:11, and 43:5). We are not told who the lyrical narrator might be. We can, however, be sure that it is someone who is in distress and oppressed, someone who feels attacked by others and full of sorrow. “My soul thirsts for God (42:2) is a picture of his or her longing for God; their tears have been their food day and night (42:3). Fellow humans are provoking them because they trust in God (42:4). The narrator feels as if he or she is drowning (42:8); it is not surprising that their soul is downcast and disturbed (42:5) and that they are full of sorrows.

Yet the author of these Psalms trusts fully in God. He or she is asking God to send “your light and your truth” (43:3) and hopes fully in God (42:11), knowing that God is their stronghold (43:1) and delight (43:4).

Surprisingly, the narrator is talking to him- or herself. Whoever it is, is talking to their own soul – these two psalms are a conversation with oneself. The narrator exhorts his or her soul “to put its hope in God” (43:10).

Why is the narrator acting like this? Because he or she knows, is convinced, that God will help and save!

Our contemporary context

What can we learn from this? When we get into situations of distress and sorrow, situations of anxiety and uncertainty, it is important that we act as the narrator of Psalm 42 and 43 does. It is crucial that we too speak out our sorrows, that we verbalize what distresses us, that we are honest with ourselves and also with God, by telling God what depresses us.

We should not give up, when sorrow takes over, when we are consumed with doubt and anxiety. We need not despair when we are overwhelmed by our emotions and when some people try and convince us with comments like, “God is no no longer present” or “God has forsaken us.” Especially then we should concentrate again on God’s message: We believe in a God of hope!

Yes, there are some things in life which we cannot change, which we have to accept in humility and humbleness; all we can do is try and make the best of them. But, on the other hand, God wants us to change those things and circumstances which we can. Knowing that we are fully loved because of God’s grace can empower us. Even if we are weak and full of sorrow, we can be assured that God is with us and leads us through our dark valleys.

The Apostle Paul was also full of sorrow and even pain, he knew that he had no power, and yet he didn’t give up. On the contrary, his faith in God led him to write these beautiful words: “[The Lord] said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Cor. 12:9).

God´s grace is sufficient for all of us to overcome distress and sorrow. Because of God´s grace, I am what I am. Recognizing this gift can help us handle worries and uncertainty. During this time of crisis, we are not only faced with an increase of sorrow, but also of hope! Humanity is developing new ways of interacting; new forms of togetherness are being institutionalized; we have become more sensitive to the needs of others; people are rediscovering the helpful side of prayers; environmental pollution is diminishing; we are focussing more on the important things of life, realizing that health and relationships are what is most important in life.

We can move on forward by trusting in God, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “I believe that God both wills and is able to bring good out of everything, even the worst” (Credo).

 

Two questions:

  1. Which uncertainties or sorrows bother you?
  2. When or where have you encountered God helping you out of your distress?

Two practical ideas for action

  1. Write down the uncertainties or sorrows that you have currently. Reflect if God has helped you previously in a similar situation – and reflect if it is not time to make a change by becoming proactive?
  2. Write your own psalm, where your uncertainties or sorrows are articulated , along with your gratefulness for God´s helpful actions.

Resources:

Prayer

God of life, in our fragility and uncertainty, we turn to you. Vindicate our confidence in you, showing us your love and your care. Lift our spirits and our hopes, empowering us with your grace to understand our fears, to face our difficulties, and to wrestle good from them. We pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

 

Rev. Dr Benjamin Simon, programme executive for Church Relations in the World Council of Churches, is also editor of International Review of Mission and has most recently served as Professor for Ecumenical Missiology at the Ecumenical Institute Bossey, WCC, for nearly four years. He is an ordained pastor of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) and has served as parish pastor as well as ecumenical officer in his hometown of Karlsruhe, Germany. He was very much involved in ecumenical cooperation between established and migration churches, and he lived some eight years in different African countries. He is a coordinator of the WCC’s COVID-19 Support Team.